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John Wellington Ennis

John Wellington Ennis

Posted March 27, 2009 | 04:31 PM (EST)

REVIEW: Sarah Palin's Makeover in Media Malpractice


Many people want to yell at their TV news. During the 2008 campaign, many did. In Media Malpractice: How Obama Got Elected and Palin Was Targeted, John Ziegler does that for you. And if you get the DVD, you can yell at Ziegler yelling at the media.

Media Malpractice is a two-hour documentary that alleges the media's broad infatuation with Barack Obama led the press to do everything imaginable to crush Sarah Palin's chances. The film was made in just a few months.

Essentially the entire film is news footage with John Ziegler saying what all the news reporters should have said, according to him. The only significant interview is with Sarah Palin, which itself was widely covered in the media in January. At the end of the film there are interviews in L.A. on Election Day, wherein Obama voters appear as clueless as guests on a Jay Walking bit from The Tonight Show.

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Otherwise, there are no authorities interviewed on media bias. There are no former network employees coming forward disclosing a company policy on covering politics. There are no telling memos that suggest a tacit agreement between media consortiums. There are no members of the press interviewed to refute or acknowledge any of these allegations or provide context. (Unlike, say, Brave New Films' Outfoxed, which uses all of these traditional methods of supporting its thesis.) There is no unaired footage that gives a feeling of looking behind the media mask. There is no verite footage of the press pool discussing how the campaign is going (for that, check out A Perfect Candidate, R.J. Cutler & David Van Taylor's classic documentary about Oliver North's '94 Senate campaign in Virginia.) The limited documentary elements used in this film make Ziegler's points harder to support beyond his own self-certainty.

It is not just that the film and Ziegeler's approach are completely subjective. By definition, all documentary is, and any first-person account of current events is limited to that person's subjectivity. It's not even that Zeigler is highly opinionated. It's that the world that he sees and decries is forged from what he projects onto news footage. It is a cycle of reasoning that is self-perpetuating, supposedly validated by its own failure to be taken seriously.

Take a look at this clip from the film which argues how easy the media went on Obama with the Rev. Wright fiasco:

Ziegler sweepingly assigns blame and bias against the media, continually as a single collective, for not reporting the world the way he sees it. He points not just to excessive or sensationalistic coverage of an instant political celebrity like Sarah Palin, but at other news stories that Ziegler insists should have been a big deal. That these stories were not reported widely and continually proves that the media is 95% actively pushing for Obama, thus making Ziegler right.

Ironically, as Ziegler spends an hour lambasting the media for not asking questions about a candidate (Were they sure Obama isn't a Muslim?), he lambastes the media for asking so many questions of Palin. Gov. Palin laments the storied speculation that her son Trig was secretly the child of her eldest daughter Bristol, and refutes it simply for being outlandish, adding that she is still being asked about it. For such a controversial topic that has haunted Palin, the film makes no effort to set the record straight. The Anchorage Daily News, eager to kill off these rumors, has repeatedly asked Gov. Palin's office to help by providing hospital records, and Palin's refusal to respond directly has not helped that story dissipate. (Alas, Andrew Sullivan's panties will remain wadded up tight.)

But the questions that Ziegler thinks should have dogged Obama are many: Why didn't the media discuss William Ayers more? Why didn't the media talk in-depth about a 2001 radio interview where Obama said that the Warren Supreme Court "wasn't that radical," because it did not venture into the issues of redistribution of wealth, thus proving he is a Socialist? How could the media not seize on the incredible story that Obama said on audiotape in January 2008 that his cap and trade system to manage greenhouse gasses could levy costly penalties on coal mining plants, possibly running them out of business? The answer to all these questions, according to Ziegler, is clearly an agreed-upon meme within all media outlets to make Obama president.

The film continues into a montage of well-worn Obama and Biden gaffes on YouTube, a cynical look at the media coverage of Obama's visit to his dying grandmother, and a montage of emotional election night commentators waxing about the historical moment. It even chronicles the advance coverage of the documentary itself, perhaps a first in film.

There are perils to using network news footage for an entire documentary.

Showing so many news clips and articles to hold up as wrong, then citing other clips to support a fact from the same networks and websites -- it is inherently a challenge to the credibility of the point, and fallacious. How can you say the media is horribly biased and wrong through certain clips, and then cite other clips to support your argument with facts from the same sources you just discredited? It's like disputing a book while referring to it for pointers. Alternating between clips from ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, SNL, etc., does not prove the unanimity of news agencies; rather, it shows that some news can be construed as slanted and some can be relied on, and that the media is a vast teeming pool of varied attitudes and actors. Moreover, it illustrates how Ziegler likes some of the news, but not other parts of it.

Almost forgotten is the fact that John McCain was the Republican candidate for president, not Sarah Palin, and that Obama and Palin were not running head to head, thus their media coverage would inherently differ. And while motormouth Joe Biden certainly received less coverage during the campaign than Sarah Palin, his gaffes have been documented on Capitol Hill for over 35 years, whereas Sarah Palin would have only been known to most people outside of Alaska before Aug. 29, 2008, through Wonkette.

Absent from this film aimed at redeeming Sarah Palin's image is any discussion of her policy proposals, her record, or any attempt to defend the charges that she continually spouted untruths on the campaign trail, probably pissing off the press pool. It belies Ziegler's and Palin's myopic perspective of politics: that good press is all that matters, and Katie Couric is to blame for asking Palin how she gets her news. In the opening titles of the film, Ziegler singles out Obama for being elected president as a first-term senator without any major legislative accomplishments, then does not hold Palin to the same standard of her legislative record that makes her White House-worthy. While attacking the mainstream media's bias, the film itself is the antithesis of objective journalism.

As a film, Media Malpractice is porn for people who need to hear what they already believe to reassure themselves that they are not wrong for getting behind lackluster Republican leaders -- it's that the media made their heroes look bad. If Ziegler's whole argument actually was a case in a court of law on charges of malpractice, it would be thrown out for lack of evidence.

You can also check out my interview with John Ziegler, director of Media Malpractice.